Don’t Count Out Theranos


The past few weeks haven’t been easy for Theranos, the pioneer hoping to make blood diagnostics a whole lot easier.

A scathing account by The Wall Street Journal, followed by some troubling documents released by the FDA, armed critics of the upstart start-up. The company clearly needs to counter these charges and demonstrate efficacy of its tests and the soundness of its business model.

However, change isn’t easy even in an industry like blood testing, which must be disrupted. We are literally still drawing vials and vials of blood for laboratory tests. This procedure seems only a shade better than the days of medical bloodletting with leeches. Also, these tests are notoriously expensive and have slow turnaround times.

What if Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes is on to something here?

What if her vision of easier, faster and cheaper blood testing is really possible? Wouldn’t we all like to see that? Blood testing is a very fundamental aspect of medicine and improving the current antiquated process has the potential to truly transform health care in a big way. Imagine how many more people might be compliant with their blood tests with this type of testing. Imagine how much faster we’d get results in critical situations, and how many lives might be saved. Imagine how much we could save our very wasteful and expensive health care system by making this process cheaper.

Before you say it’s impossible, let’s remember that the FDA did approve one of Theranos’ tests via its nanotainer technology, a test for the herpes simplex virus (HSV). That is an impressive feat, and quite frankly, I’d really like to see what other tests Theranos has been able to do via its tiny nanotainers. According to Holmes, the firm has something on the order of 120 tests submitted for approval with the FDA. Squash them now and the world may never know.

The media frenzy circling Theranos is unfortunate, and we should all hope it won’t kill off something that could really transform health care for the better. We shouldn’t be trying to protect the status quo in our dysfunctional health care system. Instead, we should be less hasty to judge Theranos.

Let’s keep in mind when we read media reports that there are a lot of stakeholders embedded in the health care industry – from equipment makers to laboratories to walk-in clinics and pharmacies – that might like to see Elizabeth Holmes fail. Some of these players currently own the market. That means they dictate the availability, the turnaround times, and yes, the price of these tests. Sure, maybe they could innovate also, but there’s inherently less motivation when you’re already a market leader. How about we introduce some competition to drive prices down and introduce more motivation to innovate?

Theranos, admittedly, has a lot of work to do. It is trying to disrupt the entire laboratory industry, while currently having just one FDA-approved test. I’m hoping more of its technology will meet FDA approval. In the meantime, it makes business sense to offer venous blood draws. If the company wants to capture enough of the market, it needs to offer the full spectrum of services to customers, be it using its proprietary technology or the industry standard.

As for Holmes, I can’t blame her for being protective of her nascent company. Unfortunately, people tend to be suspicious of things they don’t know much about, so that approach is not going to work anymore. Her challenge in the coming months will be how to effectively share more information with the media and increase transparency, now that she and Theranos are much more in the public eye.

There’s reason for optimism, not paranoia, about Theranos. Let’s allow some room for its visionary leader to carry out her ambitions. Maybe, just maybe, she’s on to something that can change health care, and the world, for the better.


Conflict-of-interest disclosure:

I have no financial or other ties to Theranos or Elizabeth Holmes. My biases include wanting to see positive health care change and more women leaders. The opinions I’ve expressed here are my own and not those of any of my employers or affiliates.


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